Originally published in the Buffalo News, September 20, 2000 p. B-2. It has since been edited. Illustration from PowerThesaurus.org.
My fellow residents of the City of Good Neighbors have probably had this experience many times over. We are somewhere in Western New York where we have occasion to meet new people. Upon learning where we happily live, work, play, shop, and worship, the suburbanite unthinkingly offers some subtle or blatant variation on “Is that neighborhood safe?” or “I heard that’s a sketchy area.”
When this happens, these tempting responses whiz through my head.
Tell them what they want to hear: “Yes, it’s dreadfully dangerous. But I’m basically stupid and lazy, so I just keep risking my life and my kids’ lives by living there every day.”
Gently turn it back on them: “I just couldn’t see sending my kids to schools with those violent suburban and rural teenage boys.” Funny how school shooting sprees never take place at so-called inner city public schools.
Not so gently turn it back on them: “Oh, not to worry. Your kids and their friends buy their drugs in other places.” As arrests and overdoses often illustrate, plenty of dealers have suburban addresses and clienteles.
Express gratitude for their concern: “How kind of you to ask! We certainly are struggling with absentee landlords, inept code enforcement, and speeding drivers. Since you seem concerned about the health of my neighborhood, why don’t you move in and join the block club? There are lots of charming, affordable houses and we’d appreciate the help.”
Assign responsibility: “Interesting that you should mention it. I’ve done some research, and as far as I can tell, it was a terrific neighborhood until your ancestors abandoned it for the suburbs.”
Throw stats at them: “Did you know that car crashes are the leading cause of death of children in America? Your kids are in more danger being driven around the suburbs that mine are walking around the city.”
Unmask the covert racism: “Do you think it is a bad neighborhood because you see Black and brown faces?”
Promote communalism: “Yes, every place has its troubles, but me moving to your town won’t improve your town or this city, whereas me staying here and working with my neighbors is making a big difference.”
Shame them: “Funny how certain grown men and women quake on the rare occasions when they drive through city neighborhoods, but expect vulnerable elders and children to live there 24/7 without complaining.”
Exaggerate their worst stereotypes: “Oh, it’s not so bad! We have nice matching tactical flak jackets, we roll up the bulletproof windows in the Escalade and take Rocky, our bodyguard, and Fang, our Doberman, with us whenever we leave the house. We crank up the radio so we’re not bothered by the gunfire; our landscaper comes by once a week to pick up the used condoms, hypodermic needles, and shell casings from the front yard; and Ashley is earning Scout badges by training the rats to do tricks.”
OK, I’ve had my fun. It’s time to get serious. I know people who assume that that cities are inherently deadly aren’t trying to be clueless and rude.
Nevertheless, the question insults every city resident on the receiving end of it. For now, I answer it by citing Buffalo’s falling crime rate and rising property values. I talk about the wonderful amenities in my quiet, peaceful, historic, community-minded, pedestrian-centered neighborhood.
But I’m putting urbophobes on notice: Your civic manners need work and my patience wears thin.